Getting their act together
China and Japan need to continue to work together for sustainable improvement of their relations
In 2010, a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard boats near the disputed Diaoyu Islands and the Chinese captain was arrested. In 2013, Sino-Japanese relations reached a record-low, due to Japan's intended nationalization of the Diaoyu Islands. In April 2013, at a Diet Committee meeting, Shinzo Abe claimed that the definition of "aggression" had yet to be established either among academics or by the international community. In December 2013, he visited Yasukuni Shrine, a place that honors Japan's war dead including some convicted war criminals.
Those were some of the darkest moments in Sino-Japanese relations this decade, but "the darkest hour is just before the dawn". Several years before the 2014 APEC, at the APEC Leaders Summit in Beijing, the leaderships of both countries had a brief meeting. Several years before the 2014 APEC, the two countries jointly issued a four-point consensus on improving Sino-Japanese ties, which showed that both were willing to work on improving bilateral relations.
From the 2014 breakthrough to now, the relationship has gradually improved. What has driven the improvement? It has been driven by their respective interests and policies.
But external factors, especially the actions of the United States, have played a role in the improvement of relations.
The China-US trade frictions have escalated recently and Japan-US frictions have been on the rise. Japan and US have different views on trade, trading mechanisms, the security of Northeast Asia and the denuclearization of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and even on US arms sales policies. The US government has pushed Japan away from the US and toward China, because it just does not care about the shared values of the US and its allies as much as previous US administrations.
However, external factors such as the policies of the Trump administration are not the primary reason for the improvement in relations between China and Japan, because China and Japan had attempted to halt the deterioration in their relations two years before Trump was sworn in.
The growing clout of China and Japan in the Asia-Pacific region has been a key contributing factor. The region after the Cold War used to be primarily dominated by the US. However, the regional dynamics have changed recently, thanks to China's Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, Japan, is discontent with being a pawn of the US and eager to become a regional player in its own right. Japan has become more visible and more vocal in the Asia-Pacific community, despite its lackluster economic growth. It has readjusted its national security strategy and defense policies to increase its international profile. It has actively led the establishment of the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership and signed the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), the trade agreement that has created the largest free-trade zone in the world.
Cooperative relations, which matter a lot for both China and Japan, as well as the international community, have huge development potential. However, a better relationship will be hard-earned. It hinges on the efforts, strategies and policies of both sides.
First, both countries should be clearly aware that the potential of the bilateral cooperation lies in their complementary economies. As early as 1960s, Masataka Kousaka, a renowned Japanese scholar of international politics, pointed out that China should not be viewed as an archenemy of Japan. Kenichi Ohmae, another prestigious scholar of management in modern times, also recommended Japan treating China as a "patron" in the 21st century, as the Chinese market would be big enough for Japanese goods. Meanwhile, China wants the Japanese know-how in energy conservation and environmental protection, and the experience in social governance, regional cooperation and even in surviving a trade war.
Second, for smooth and sustainable relations, both countries need to handle their disputes properly, especially the remaining sensitive issues that cannot be addressed in the near future. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. Acknowledging the thorny issues, including the dispute over Diaoyu Islands, can help the two countries manage the tensions and create the conditions for a mutually-acceptable solution in the future. It is no use burying heads in the sand, the problems have to be faced head-on.
Both sides should enhance the dialogue between them and expand the scope of communication. China and Japan have shared goals in promoting free trade zones and regional cooperation, but they also have disputes, even conflicts with each other. A more assertive Japan does not necessarily see eye to eye with a rising China. For instance, as the host country of this year's G20 summit, Japan's stances on reform of the World Trade Organization, e-business and cybersecurity transparency, are aligned more with those of the West rather than China's.
Third, what can we do to increase the stability and sustainability of Sino-Japanese relations?
Handle the historical baggage properly and seek more common interests in the future. Both countries need to face the reality while seeing the bigger picture of bilateral relations in the context of the world undergoing profound changes unseen in a century.
At such a historical juncture, China needs a better understanding of Japan, and vice versa. The expectation for a closer relationship will be reduced to mere wishful thinking if not backed up by real projects and initiatives. It is imperative to reinforce concrete collaboration. For instance, pressing ahead with projects in third markets.
China is keen on promoting new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind, while Japan has set its sights on exploring a new development path in the Reiwa Era. It is the goal of both nations to seize the historical opportunities, and safeguard peace and stability. Both need to work together to tackle the challenges ahead.
The author is director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.